Wild foods – think lobster, truffles and now peak-season ramps – are seductive, so easy to fall in love with at first bite. I fell hard for ramps last year. But then I learned their more complicated back-story, which burdens my heart. It’s the classic “omnivore’s dilemma”: Should we partake of this delicious, but potentially threatened natural resource, just because we can? Do you dig them up whole, or leave the roots undisturbed, or even forgo the coveted bulbs, picking just one green blade (less damage than deer inflict) from each ramp?
Since I’m from Virginia, you’d think I’d have more experience with ramps, which are also known as wild leeks and are quite the Appalachian delicacy. But I never ate them growing up. Until last spring I’d never even seen whole raw ramps – hairy roots with their brown, coiled knot rhizomes – much less cooked with them. But in early May, I noticed Marada and Leah Cook’s respected Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative advertising them. I sprang for the minimum (and often maximum per person) order – an overflowing 5-pound bag for $35. Despite the price, I couldn’t resist.
After enduring our first Maine winter, I craved the taste of terroir through wild greens like ramps. The scallion-y, almost sweet green leaves briefly puffed like a balloon as I sautéed them whole. Then I draped them languidly over goat cheese-and-fiddlehead fern pizza with my baker extraordinaire friend Elizabeth Weston, who happily supplied the dough. I also pureed them raw into a spicy pesto, and I chopped ramps and steamed them with local cherrystone clams.
I’d planned for my toddler, Theo, and me to go on a ramps trek this spring, doing so proved trickier than I realized. For one thing, young ramps slightly resemble several poisonous or emetic plants. Also, especially here in New England, ramps are rarer than it seems at first blush. Maine wild foods guru Arthur Haines, a research botanist for the New England Wild Flower Society, says they grow only in pockets scattered throughout the state, since agriculture and industry claimed much of their native fertile habitat along high-terrace river floodplains and rocky slopes near maple sugar bushes. The problem, Haines suggests in his book Ancestral Plants, is that when a forager chances upon them, ramps seem deceptively abundant, “often growing in large, dense colonies.” Indeed, Marada Cook says the pickers she closely monitors find almost mile-long patches flush with ramps near the Kennebec River in the Skowhegan/Madison area.
Perhaps we need clearer regulations for such terrestrial wild foods, just as Maine has to protect our threatened ground-fish and shellfish industries? Nearby Quebec banned the harvesting of threatened ramps almost 20 years ago. Should we continue digging them whole, tangled roots and all, as most commercial foragers (including Crown O’ Maine) do? Cook admits she’s ambivalent – ramps don’t regenerate, unlike much more abundant fiddleheads. But fine restaurants and high-end grocers demand the coveted whole presentation; the intact roots a sure-sign of freshness.
But last May, Cook received an email that gave her pause. It was from Michael Rodrigue, the Bowdoin College cafeteria’s esteemed meat cutter, a foraging enthusiast who has studied with Haines. Rodrigue was thrilled to see her ramps, such a nutritious wild food, in the produce section at Rising Tide food co-op in Damariscotta. But he was disturbed to see the roots attached. If the roots are left in the ground, they can grow a new bulb the next year. Even better, Rodrigue and Haines say, would be to take cues from the sustainable practices of Native Americans, harvesting just one green leaf off each shoot, so the ramp could continue photosynthesis, feed its bulb undisturbed and send up its flower seed stalk to regenerate.
Harvesting only the vitamin C-packed green leaves could be a win-win: better for the ramps’ survival and better for human health as well. That’s because lipids in the bulbs concentrate soil toxins, problematic since ramps grow near heavily polluted rivers (think of Maine’s mill towns), Haines says. He will forage for ramps’ bulbs from uncontaminated soils, from mid-August into September in the mountains of Western Maine, after the green leaves have died back. Again using aboriginal techniques, he snaps off just the now-fattened bulb, leaving the roots undisturbed, and he plants the stalk’s ripe seeds back into the soil as he goes.
Some chefs and foodies are trying to take a more mindful approach. Contractor Gilbert Fulford, who forages for ramps around Monroe, says he just snaps off the greens (for him, it’s hard to loosen the roots anyway). His partner, Sara Moscoso, pregnant with the couple’s first child, lets the leaves stand in for scallions in Korean kimchi and in Argentine chimichurri sauce for grilled meats. South Berwick cookbook author Kathy Gunst said she learned from ethno-botanist John Forti of the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to selectively break off a few delicious bulbs from each cluster, never removing the roots.
Though delicate, ramp leaves can last at least a week in the fridge – my neglected bag is still going strong, if wilted, after six days. I sauté a mess of ramps in butter or olive oil, with a bit of salty-tart ume plum vinegar splashed on top, to store in the refrigerator for pizzas, pastas, fried rice or risotto. Ramps will be an accoutrement for Korean bibimbap rice bowls this year. They’re a natural in any egg dish and in place of leeks in vichyssoise. To extend their shelf life, pickle ramps, or as Gunst recommends (she devotes a whole chapter to them in “Notes from a Maine Kitchen”): blend sautéed ramps into ramp compound butter. Use it to make a mean garlic bread or grilled cheese sandwich.
Though ramps are primarily harvested during fleeting fiddlehead season, Haines says the leaves are, in fact, fit for consumption at least through early June. If Theo and I don’t get our acts together by then, perhaps we’ll join Haines on a foray for the denser bulbs come August, or wait until next season. We can read up on sustainable harvesting techniques in the meantime, to ensure this precious resource will still be enjoyed for generations to come. Amid this ramps revival, Gunst, in a recent essay for Modern Farmer, reminds us to not neglect their more common (and cheaper) cultivated cousin – leeks – plentiful all summer into late fall, even after it frosts. Leeks are a love less tinged with guilt. But somehow a wild, threatened nature makes ramps all the more alluring.
Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Reach her through her blog baltimoregon.com, or follow her on Twitter @baltimoregon.